By Phil McNulty |BBC Sports|
Chelsea survived a late scare to move into the Champions League knockout stages with victory over Lille at Stamford Bridge.
Frank Lampard’s side were in complete control for the most part and set up the victory they required with first-half goals from Tammy Abraham and Cesar Azpilicueta.
Chelsea’s nerves were frayed when former striker Loic Remy pulled one back for Lille late on but they were able to close out victory to reach the last 16 after finishing a tough group in second place behind Valencia but ahead of last season’s semi-finalists Ajax.
Abraham scored his 13th goal of the season after 19 minutes when he turned in Willian’s cross from close range while Azpilicueta headed in from Emerson’s corner 10 minutes before the break.
Lille, with nothing but pride to play for and with a much-changed team, barely threatened until Remy’s late strike but Chelsea saw out the win to complete the first phase of their Champions League assignment.
Where Lampard must improve Chelsea
Lampard and Chelsea deserve great credit for navigating their way out of a dangerous Group H – especially as the Champions League campaign opened with a home defeat by Valencia.
Chelsea regrouped, struck gold with a crucial win away against Ajax and then earned another vital point coming from 4-1 down in the return game against last season’s semi-finalists at Stamford Bridge.
It has been a good effort but Lampard will know as well as anyone that there are faults which must be addressed before the tournament resumes with the knockout phase in February.
Chelsea are full of flair and excitement going forward, led by the free-scoring Abraham, but vulnerable at the back, as proved by those four goals conceded at home to Ajax and the number of chances conceded before drawing 2-2 in Valencia.
And even here, where they were in cruise control for virtually the whole game, they had anxious moments at the end after Remy scored for Lille.
It is in central defence where the uncertainties lie, deficiencies exposed in the Premier League as well as in Europe – and the evidence is already there that this soft underbelly will leave Chelsea in danger as they are on course to draw one of the Champions League elite.
The return of Antonio Rudiger after injury, starting his first game since September, at least gives Lampard the luxury of having his best defender available but the lifting of Chelsea’s transfer ban is very timely in the Champions League context.
Chelsea will surely be looking in the central defensive area, although buying high quality in January is always made more difficult by others clubs’ reluctance to sell mid-season.
Lampard will be well aware this is a weak link that will be ruthlessly probed if Chelsea are to drive deeper into this competition.
Abraham maturing fast
Abraham was given his Chelsea chance after the club were hit with the transfer ban, and on the back of his stellar performances in inspiring Aston Villa to promotion to the Premier League during a loan spell last season.
And how the 22-year-old has delivered in style at home and abroad for Chelsea and his mentor Lampard – scoring his 13th goal of an outstanding season so far, poaching inside the six-yard box on the end of Willian’s delivery.
It was a goal that made Abraham the first English player to score 13 competitive goals for Chelsea in a single season since Lampard scored 17 in 2012-13. There is plenty of potential to add to that tally with more than half of the season remaining.
Abraham’s physical presence is imposing but his mobility is also impressive and as he proved in loan spells at Bristol City and Villa, he deals heavily in the most valuable currency of all – goals.
Chelsea’s weaknesses at the back are obvious, but the young striker has the ability to compensate, emerging as an increasingly influential figure in Lampard’s developing Chelsea side.
Man of the match – Tammy Abraham (Chelsea)
‘There will be bumps in the road’
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard told BT Sport: “It did get twitchy. We need to take our chances better. At 2-0 I thought it was not quite done and when Lille scored it made it a more nervy finish to the game than it needed to be.
“It’s going to be a work in progress. With the young players we have in this side there will be bumps in the road. I push them and can be quite hard on them, setting the high standards I want to see them reach, but at the same time I have to be patient.
“Today was a sign of how much work we still have got to do. It should have been a calmer finish to the game and that is the biggest thing, for me, that we need to improve.”
Chelsea safely through again – the stats
- Chelsea have progressed to the knockout stages in 15 of their 16 Champions League campaigns, failing only in 2012-13.
- Frank Lampard is the first English manager to take a team into the Champions League knockout stages after taking charge of all six group games since Harry Redknapp with Tottenham in 2010-11.
- Tammy Abraham has scored 13 goals in all competitions this season for Chelsea, which is more than twice as many as his nearest team-mate Christian Pulisic (six).
- Cesar Azpilicueta has scored two goals in his past three Champions League games. He scored just once in his first 46 appearances in the competition.
- Lille earned just one point this season for their worst return in a Champions League group stage.
- Lille have played six away games against English sides in major European competitions and failed to win any of them.
- Loic Remy became the seventh player to score for and against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, after Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa, Michael Ballack, David Luiz and Willian.
Chelsea return to Premier League action on Saturday, as they welcome Bournemouth to Stamford Bridge at 15:00 GMT.